Liberals to make safe injection sites easier to open and fentanyl harder to smuggle into Canada
Responsibility for drug policy will be moved back to Health ministry from Justice department
Health Minister Jane Philpott and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced a series of legislative changes today that will speed up the process for opening safe injection sites.
"This is a crisis that is complex, it's multi-dimensional and as we make this announcement this afternoon, the people who are foremost in my mind are family members. Mothers in particular, to whom I've spoken, who've told me the stories of their sons or daughters who've lost their lives due to opioid overdoses," said Philpott.
"Today, the government of Canada is following up on commitments that we made," she added.
The government said in a statement that the existing National Anti-Drug Strategy would be replaced with a "more balanced approach" called the Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy. The new strategy "restores harm reduction as a core pillar of Canada's drug policy."
That new strategy would also put drug policy back under the Health ministry and away from the Justice department.
"It will reframe problematic substance use as the public health issue that it is. It will return the lead on the Canadian drugs and substances strategy to the minister of health rather than the minister of justice," said Philpott.
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To facilitate the change the Liberals introduced Bill C-37 in the House of Commons earlier today. The bill would support the strategy by amending the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the Custom's Act and the Proceeds of Crime and Terrorist Financing Act.
The Liberals have long supported the expansion of safe injection sites as a means of harm reduction for addicts, but have been slowed in approving new sites by legislation brought in under the Conservatives.
The Respect for Communities Act, introduced in 2015, requires 26 criteria to be met before the federal government can begin considering a new safe injection site — or "safe consumption site," as they are called by the federal government, in an effort to reflect a variety of methods for ingesting drugs beyond intravenous injection.
The 26 application criteria will be repealed entirely, Philpott said. Bill C-37 would instead require those wishing to set up a safe injection site, to meet five benchmarks:
- Demonstration of the need for such a site to exist.
- Demonstration of appropriate consultation of the community.
- Presentation of evidence on whether the site will impact crime in the community.
- Ensuring regulatory systems are in place.
- Site proponents will need to prove appropriate resources are in place.
Philpott has been facing pressure to speed up the process to open new sites, and to declare a public health emergency over the growing number of deaths related to opioid overdoses. The province of British Columbia has seen hundreds die from drug overdoses this year alone, and provincial officials there have labelled the opioid crisis a public health emergency.
Changes to Customs Act
The Customs Act will also be changed to allow mail weighing 30 grams or less to be inspected to help fight the influx of opioids — something that currently requires the Customs and Border Services Agency to obtain consent from the sender or the addressee, Goodale said.
"We also need to tighten and toughen our borders here at home and that's what this bill will do," said Goodale. "All incoming packages will be inspectable if there are reasonable grounds to be suspicious.
"And this is vital when you are dealing with deadly substances like fentanyl and carfentanil. An amount the size of a grain of salt can cause a fatal overdose. As little as two milligrams of fentanyl can kill. In a 30-gram pack, that's 15,000 deadly doses."
Philpott and Goodale also announced measures to restrict the availability of pill presses and encapsulators in Canada which currently face no import restrictions.
"Bill C-37 will require pill presses and encapsulators to be pre-approved by Health Canada before importation," said Goodale. "Importers would be required to demonstrate that approval has been obtained before the time of import. If no proof is supplied, officials at the border would have the authority to detain the device."
Dying every day
Philpott said she expects it to take several months for the changes to become law and urged the House of Commons and the Senate to pass the bill "as expeditiously as possible given that people are dying every single day as a result of this."
Until recently only one person in Philpott's office was tasked with helping to approval new safe consumption sites but now there is "an entire task force" in her department working on the file, she said.
NDP MP Murray Rankin welcomed the move as a "good first step" but said it was not enough and that dozens of people would likely die in the meantime.
"It's taken a year to get to this recognition that we have a crisis," said Rankin. "Our position is that they should declare it a national health emergency. That's certainly what it is in my community. That's certainly what the health minister of British Columbia thinks."